darwin’s conjecture: the search for general principles of social and economic evolution

Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution has been applied to the social and economic realms since the origins of that theory.  Geoff Hodgson and Thorbjørn Knudsen have written a recent (2011) book about the promise of “generalized darwinism” – Darwin’s conjecture: the search for general principles of social and economic evolution. University of Chicago Press.  

I’m extremely skeptical about the fruitfulness of applying Darwinian, evolutionary theory to the social realm. (I’ll post some specifics about that skepticism later.)  But, I still loved this book.  The book traces the history of how (and by whom) Darwinian theories have been generalized to various social settings: organizations, human interaction in general, societies and economies.  The book is wildly interdisciplinary and touches on the work of key scholars in economics, sociology, anthropology etc.  It also carefully outlines the (proposed) similarities between the evolution of biological species/systems and human ones.  Various key concepts are discussed extensively: habits, routines, and mechanisms such as selection, the intricacies of Darwinian versus Lamarckian arguments in the social domain, etc. etc.  Well worth reading.  In fact, I think the book is a must-read.

Howard Aldrich also plugs the book on the back cover:

In this provocative and informative new book, Hodgson and Knudsen offer a general conceptual scheme that allows the application of Darwinian principles to social and economic evolution. The authors bring together concepts and principles from an eclectic mix of sources. Among other applications, they show the usefulness of this scheme for explaining the evolution of prelinguistic culture, human language, tribal customs, writing and records, states and laws, and the institutionalization of science and technology. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in modern evolutionary thought as applied to the social sciences.


Written by teppo

March 16, 2012 at 6:14 pm

Posted in uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. Just reserved my copy, looks really interesting.

    I really enjoyed “Collective Animal Behavior” which I read on your recommendation some months ago.


    Charles Seguin

    March 16, 2012 at 11:07 pm

  2. Sumpter’s book is fantastic.



    March 17, 2012 at 4:58 am

  3. I can only hope that Richard Lewontin gets a chance to review this book. The concluding paragraph to his pungent take on Richerson and Boyd, applying Darwin to culture (in The New York Review):

    ‘That a theoretical formulation is desirable because it makes it easier and more efficient to write more articles and books giving simple explanations for phenomena that are complex and diverse seems a strange justification for work that claims to be scientific. It confuses “understanding” in the weak sense of making coherent and comprehensible statements about the real world with “understanding” that means making correct statements about nature. It makes the investigation of material nature into an intellectual game, disarming us in our struggle to maintain science against mysticism. We would be much more likely to reach a correct theory of cultural change if the attempt to understand the history of human institutions on the cheap, by making analogies with organic evolution, were abandoned. What we need instead is the much more difficult effort to construct a theory of historical causation that flows directly from the phenomena to be explained. That the grand historical theorists of the past tried and failed to do this does not foreclose further efforts. After all, Darwin was preceded by eminent failures and even he did not get it all right.’



    March 17, 2012 at 3:34 pm

  4. Real amazing recommendation!



    March 18, 2012 at 5:12 pm

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